WHEN foreign conflicts flicker on our TV screens, our attention is often quickly pushed to the next ad break or reality renovation, singing or cooking show. We’re taken, for the briefest of moments, from our own lives for a mere glimmer of the reality faced by those who live through violent conflicts.
Missing from such media depictions are the real life, lived experiences of those caught in the crossfire of war. Unsurprisingly the lasting ramifications for those involved are often hidden to us and ultimately forgotten.
In 2011, news broadcasts from around the globe announced Southern Sudan had been declared an independent nation.
Long held perceptions of an African nation gripped by one of the world’s longest and bloodiest civil wars were contrasted with images of cheering crowds, singing and joyful street celebrations. Children gleefully waved flags of the world’s newest nation.
Such exuberant displays belie the country’s bloody history.
Complex ethnic, interreligious and political tensions existing since the country’s independence in 1956 have been the cause of great division in the region. The Second Sudanese Civil War began in 1983 and lasted until 2005. Throughout this time, close to 30,000 South Sudanese children were sent to neighbouring countries to escape the violence at the behest of South Sudanese rebel forces.
Some were orphans with little choice, while others were handed over willingly by parents who were assured their children would avoid the intensifying conflict and be provided with education, food and relative safety. In 1987, four years into the Second Sudanese Civil War, ten-year-old Paul Dau, the eldest boy from a large South Sudanese family, was sent to Ethiopia on such a promise.
Mr Dau was one of the many tens-of-thousands of South Sudanese boys sent to neighbouring countries on foot. Years later, arriving on mass at refugee camps, they would become known as the Lost Boys of Sudan.
Most were under 15, as boys of that age and older were often conscripted as child soldiers.
“The oldest kids were 13 or 14-years-old,” Mr Dau said.
“We had to walk on foot for months going to Ethiopia. When we arrived there were no shelters, no food, no medicines – a lot of kids passed away.”
Once in Ethiopia there was in fact little access to education either.
Along with many others Mr Dau was later sent back to South Sudan for a short time and then finally to Kenya.
“I believe we should be ethical contributors to the wellbeing of humanity, we should be moving towards building a better church and a better world” – Paul Dau
“We spent three-and-a-half -years in Ethiopia. I think we only did about two or three classes there. We were trained as child soldiers, but when the Ethiopian regime was overthrown in 1991 we were sent back to South Sudan.
“We spent less than a year there and finally went to Kenya when fighting intensified again.”
Mr Dau would spend the next 11 years in a Kenyan refugee camp.
“I did some proper schooling in Kenya, up to the equivalent of year 12.
“But we were refugees, and being a refugee, you have to live in a given area and are tightly controlled. I can’t really compare it with a prison but I don’t think it was that much different – to be in one place for 11 years was not good.”
As well as being forced from his home, Mr Dau suffered the heartbreaking loss of half his family as a result of the conflict.
“I came from a family of 10 – I lost my father, three brothers and two sisters.
“My mum is now in South Sudan with three brothers and one sister. So the family is split into half – six are gone and six are still alive.
“I went back last year – that was the first time I had seen them in 25 years. I was delighted to be back around them, but it was hard.”
Arriving in Australia in 2003 on a humanitarian visa, Mr Dau quickly took on educational courses in Melbourne.
“I had no problems when I came to Australia. When I arrived at the airport I was received by my cousins and other South Sudanese.
“It was good. I wouldn’t say there were a lot of South Sudanese people here then, but there were a few. Because there was a community here there was no hardship to endure.”
Despite his optimism, Mr Dau acknowledges that there have been and will likely be more bumps on the road for African migrants settling in Australia.
“I remember when one of John Howard’s ministers came out in public and said that Sudanese people are impossible to integrate into the community – we could not see what he meant,” he said.
“This is the first time Australia has been receiving Africans in large numbers in its history. We have to expect that the journey of familiarity is not going to be smooth.
“Having all these things in mind has helped me make the transition into the wider community.
“Most of my people don’t know English, I have studied at a university level but still many of my Australian colleagues struggle to understand me at times.
“What about people who have no English skills? It is a process that will take a long time – for Australian people to understand us and for us to understand Australian people.”
Drawing upon his early life in Africa, Mr Dau keenly observes current multicultural issues with an eye for equality and unity.
“Sudan is a multicultural, multi-religious place but the modern Sudan has failed terribly to live up to the expectation of a multicultural and multi-religious state – that is why we have been at war since independence.
“If diversity is not managed appropriately it becomes a disease to a nation.
“Sudan’s diversity has not been managed well and it has become like a cancer for the Sudanese people. In the west, in Darfur, there is war. In the centre there is war.”
Mr Dau sees the problems associated with imposing religion and the effect it has had in Sudan and elsewhere.
“South Sudan decided two years ago to become an independent nation so the country has split into two – is that a solution? I don’t think so.
“Now that we have split the country in two we have resorted into proxy war.
“The Sudanese government are supporting the rebels in the South and the South is accused of supporting rebels in the North – so what difference are we making?
“Our problem is that religion is yours it’s not ours. You can choose to become religious or not and that religion is a personal domain whereas the state should belong to all of us – a public domain.
“You cannot impose religion on people. Like one year sharia law was introduced in 1983 and it was meant to be imposed all over Sudan – that is when the war started. You cannot impose issues like that.
“Religion doesn’t unite us. The history of Christianity tells us this – the histories of any religions tell us.
“Unity of Sudan on a new basis, a Sudan of equality, whereby all religions are equal and all ethnicities are equal will be a better Sudan.”
Commenting on his adopted home country Mr Dau is optimistic for better understanding between cultures.
“I think Australia is on the right track in the process of accepting and embracing diversity and using it as a gift.
“We should focus on what unites us – what unites us is being Australians.
“I am proud to be here. Apart from the Indigenous people, Australia is made up of immigrants. So why should I not be proud when other people are all mostly migrants and are proud?”
Mr Dau is currently completing the final year of a bachelor of theology and diploma of ministry at the Centre for Theology and Ministry. Now settled in Melbourne, he is married, has four children and is looking forward to his life as a Uniting Church minister.
“One of my hopes is to be able to bring healing to the world,” Mr Dau said.
“As a Church we are in a broken world and we are also broken – we are not exempted.
“I come from a war-torn background. I know how the church was involved and how divided the church was on the conflict.
“You come to South Africa on apartheid, you go anywhere, the church should not be diving away from the tough issues – the church should not be waiting for other people to speak up first and then join later.
“I believe we should be ethical contributors to the wellbeing of humanity, we should be moving towards building a better church and a better world, where death and greed will be minimised.
“But how that is going to be achieved I don’t know.”